No. 35 October 2003
The Hamam: Sacred Springs
ISTANBUL? YES, ISTANBUL
Voss No. 35 October 2003
Hamam Sacred Springs
hamam experience that one can still enjoy throughout the Middle
East has its roots in the ancient Mother Goddess culture in Anatolia
and dates back to the Neolithic period.
This is the point of origin of the contemporary gelin
hamam (bridal bath) in Turkey, for example.
Together with her female friends and family, the bride to be
goes to the hamam to be
washed and massaged. She
anoints herself with perfume, and beautifies herself with cosmetics,
in much the same way as the goddess Inannna prepared herself for her
conjugal union with the shepherd god, Dumuzzi.
In the hamam,
sensuality and spirituality are inextricably melded together.
stereotypes trivialize the tradition of hamam
culture, but in fact, this ritual bathing possesses enormous depth
and meaning. Centuries
after the demise of the goddess tradition women were still able to
enter the hamam and
experience a uniquely private space.
Always a place set aside for physical as well as spiritual
renewal, the hamam became
the inviolate space where women could retreat to go deep inside
themselves, to talk with other women and trade news or gossip, or
simply to rest. Frequently,
especially in the old days, women brought food to share with others
in the hamam.
They also played musical instruments and danced.
This still happens on occasion.
The feeling of
the hamam as being a space
set apart persists. Invariably
a retreat from the pressures of daily life you emerge with renewed
energy and the sense that life is once again possible.
Hamam in Istanbul is
considered one of the very best examples of a classical hamam.
Nur-u Banu Valide Sultan, the mother of Murat III and the
wife of Selim II, caused it to be built in 1584.
There is some controversy as to whether or not the great
architect Mimar Sinan actually had a hand in its construction, but
it appears that he did draw the plans for it. The building, however, is magnificent, irrespective of who
actually built it.
the mens and the womens baths are located under a central
dome. When you lie on
your back on the heated göbek
taşı (the central marble stone where massage is done) and look
upwards, your eyes are caught by slanting rays of light coming from
dozens of small, round windows in the dome, shimmering like so many
luminous heavenly bodies. Closing your eyes, you are lulled by the murmuring voice of
your masseuse (if you are
a woman) or your masseur
(if you are a man) and the sounds of running and splashing water.
All of the tensions and strains in your body flow out along
with the water being poured over you.
Afterwards, you are free to lie on the stone for as long as
you like. An attendant
will bring water or fruit juice if you desire, a good idea, since
after the hamam it is
important to replenish fluids.
myself prefer to go to a hamam tourists never go to because while Çemberlitaş is undeniably
beautiful (as is the famed Cağlolu hamam)
I am not comfortable with either the high prices or the fact that I
know that what I am seeing is a show, and therefore not genuine.
For years now I have gone to a small hamam
tucked away on a side street in Beşiktaş. Only Turkish women
go there. It isnt
elaborately decorated but it is very clean and has the requisite
marble interior and tiny round windows in the domed ceiling. I generally go two or three times a month and it is an
important part of taking care of myself (right up there with going
to the coiffeur and having my hair done and getting a manicure and a
pedicure). It is also a
critically important part of my taking care of my psychological and
spiritual well being.
with anything else, I have developed my own routine.
Before leaving the house I pack my bag making sure I have all
the requisite stuff: my
own soap, a washcloth (I use the traditional crotched kind), a
pumice stone for my feet, a kese
(a bathing mitt for scrubbing the body.
Mine is thin and not like the heavy fiber ones the bath
attendants use to scrub me with, although I am trying to get a hold
of one of those. I am told that the best come from Siirt, a town in east
Turkey), toothpaste and toothbrush, two towelsone for my body and
one for my hair), shampoo and creme rinse, wooden slippers (again,
very traditional), a bez
(a piece of woven cotton used to wrap yourself in) and a
tas, the small bowl used to pour water on yourself.
(I dont use plastic.
Mine is antique copper.)
I go to the hamam I find
an empty locker (you lock your belongings inside it and bring the
key into the bath with you), take off my clothes, wrap myself in my bez,
sit down and have a cigarette and make small talk with whoever
happens to be there. Then, yavaş, yavaş
(slowly, slowly) I go inside and find a small cubicle of my own.
I fill the marble basin to overflowing with hot water and use
the tas to scoop up water
and pour it all over myself. I
scrub my feet with the pumice stone.
Then I go to the central marble stone which is heated from
underneath and lie down on my stomach, waiting for the woman
attendant to come and give me a kese
(the scrubbing with a coarse mitt that always leaves an unbelievable
amount of curled up gray pieces of dead skin all over your body) and
a full body massage (which is done with my washcloth and soap and
her hands, both). She
shampoos my hair, massages my scalp and then uses a large basin to
pour hot and cold water all over me.
The whole process takes about twenty minutes and afterwards I
always wind up feeling energized and full of hope, both.
I return to my cubicle and privately luxuriate in the steam and the
heat for a bit more before heading back out to the dressing area.
I dry myself off, rub cream all over my body, get dressed and
leave. Recently there
has been a zammeaning
an increase in the price, but its still unbelievably cheaponly
15,000,000 TL (today, thats about $10.)
most deeply satisfying thing for me about my hamam
ritual (and it definitely is a ritual) is my knowing this is
something women have done for thousands and thousands of years.
It is undeniably true that women throughout the Middle East
know everything about taking care of their bodies and making
themselves beautiful. They
also knowat least deep downthat water has purifying
properties. It not only
makes you physically clean but it clears away the other levels of
your being as well, renewing you psychologically, emotionally and
some young women do go to the hamam many of the women who go there are older.
Even grandmothers go. I
have seen incredibly elderly women there.
I have learned that for the most part, the younger generation
doesnt like the hamam. If they do
anything they will go to the saunas at the five-star hotels or the
expensive health clubs. This
to me is another sign that we are definitely going the wrong way
here in Turkey. It is yet another example of how we are turning our backs on
our own culture here and I think it is a great mistake. How many times have I said in the space of this column that
while we should be ready to be open to new technologies and new ways
of doing and thinking we should take great care not to lose our old
ways of being? Well,
this is just a thought, for what its worth.
I wont burden you with any more philosophy today.
a good month.
Istanbul Life.Org : Ishak Pasa Caddesi No: 6 Floor : 2 Sultanahmet / ISTANBUL - TURKEY
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|No.1- April 2000||No.11 April 2001||No. 20 July 2002||No 29 April 2003|
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36 January 2004
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